In the early spring of 1964 I was in advanced flight training at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, a few miles north of Milton, a small city 20 miles northeast of Pensacola, in Florida’s panhandle. Advanced flight training was as much fun as it was demanding. We flew the North American T-28, a training aircraft that was also used extensively in combat during the Vietnam War. The T-28 was hot. Even today it remains an air show regular.
From NAS Whiting we flew to an airfield where we practiced simulated carrier landings. And we flew to a small airfield near Evergreen, Alabama, to practice touch and goes, the repetitive, practice-makes-perfect maneuver that’s an aviator’s best insurance for safe take-offs and landings. Weather permitting we flew twice a day, five days a week. The war in Vietnam was heating up and it was demanding cannon fodder. Still, we had weekends off.
And so, early one Saturday evening I decided to drive to Evergreen, Alabama. I’d only seen it from the air and I was simply curious to see it from the ground. My plan was to drive the 60 miles north to Evergreen, buy a Coke and then drive back south to Pensacola Beach to drink with my friends. I drove a Corvair Monza convertible back then. The version I owned had a turbo so the whole there and back with the top down through the piney woods would take three hours, max.
I arrived at the south end of Evergreen in under an hour. There was a general store there, one of those places you see in slasher films; wide front porch, red Coke cooler on the porch, screen door leading to a dimly lit interior. But since I’d never seen a slasher film or any of those B-minus flicks where kids get into a car and drive across the wrong county line and a sheriff… Well, you know.
Picture me: pressed trousers, clean cut appearance, short Navy-regulations hair, Wisconsin plates on a new, shiny convertible. Picture me walking onto the porch, taking a Coke from the cooler and walking in through the screen door to pay for it. There may still be soft drink coolers like that somewhere. If there are, they’re probably in the deep South and one of them is probably still on that porch in Evergreen.
I walked in; maybe three steps in. There were three guys sitting in wooden chairs and another behind a wooden counter. We looked at each other. The silence wasn’t deafening, it was dangerous. It was a silence in which you could imagine a safety clicking off. That encounter marked the first time in my life that I thought I could die on the spot.
But since I was then 23 and wanted to win my wings and fly for the Navy and, besides, didn’t particularly want to die right there, I put the Coke on the floor, walked backwards through the screen door, crossed the porch, got into my car and drove back south to Florida. I remember watching my rearview mirror constantly until I crossed into Florida and, once there, didn’t stop until I was with my friends in a bar on Pensacola Beach.
Whenever I call myself out for being too paranoid that night in Evergreen I recall that three months later and 190 miles northwest of Evergreen, three young civil rights workers, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered and buried in an earthen dam in a swamp near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
I would like to think that we have all come a long way since June 21, 1964, when members of the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan ambushed and murdered James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in a dismal swamp in Mississippi. But the current, pervasive, shrill cries gathered into the sound bite packages of politics delivered daily by the media tell me I cannot.